By Mitch Phillips
OITA, Japan (Reuters) – The news that the marathon and walking events at the Tokyo Olympics are set to move to a cooler climate will be welcomed by the majority of athletes, who can now focus on reaching their absolute maximum without fear of a major medical breakdown.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced a plan to move the 2020 Games endurance events to Sapporo on the northern island Hokkaido due to concerns about the impact of heat on the scheduled Tokyo course.
Although it has still to be approved by Tokyo 2020 officials, it seems likely to be, meaning athletes will already be starting to revise their training plans.
It is hard enough in normal circumstances for athletes trying to hone their training for the longest endurance races to ensure they peak at just the right time.
Yet when that already gruelling training has to be adapted to factor in high temperatures and humidity, the challenge is doubled.
The 50km walk is the longest event on the athletics calendar, with athletes pounding the pavements for over three and a half hours, while everyone is aware of the extremes of exertion the world’s best marathoners go through.
Coaches and scientists have for many years tried to mitigate the impact of heat, with specially-designed ultra-light and “high-wicking” fabrics for race kit, ice caps and even ice vests used to cool the body prior to competing.
Warm weather training camps have become the norm, while more left-field – and considerably cheaper – methods such as training in a sauna or over-heated gym are also commonly used.
However, as was illustrated in last month’s athletics world championships in Doha, even the best preparations can fail to beat the elements, and the Tokyo course had already been highlighted as having very little shade.
Doha organisers started the marathons and walks around midnight to take advantage of the cooler conditions but it failed spectacularly, with over 40 percent of competitors dropping out of the women’s marathon, some of them in visible distress.
“You see somebody down on the course and it’s just, extremely grounding and scary, that could be you in the next kilometre, the next 500 metres,” Canadian runner Lyndsay Tessier said after the race.
“I’m just really grateful to have finished standing up.”
In last year’s Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, Scotsman Callum Hawkins was on course for the biggest win of his career when he collapsed with heatstroke 2km from the finish.
He said he had felt absolutely no ill-effects at the time – something medical professionals are particularly concerned about with elite distance athletes who train themselves to endure such levels of pain and discomfort that they go far beyond the “red zone” that would bring lesser mortals to a halt when their bodies are screaming for relief.
Hawkins learned from his ordeal and trained for Doha in his garden shed, with two electric heaters on full blast. He was leading again late in Doha but, though he faded to finish fourth, he crossed the line on his feet this time.
Now he, and many more like him, particularly from cooler parts of the world, will be able to plan their next year of training thinking only of how to improve such things as their oxygen take up, their running economy and build their strength and endurance, and no longer try to find a way to “just survive”.
(Reporting Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)